Replacing an automotive icon with a model that's equally visionary, charismatic, and unmistakable is surely one of the toughest tricks for any car designer. Case in point: the Audi TT, whose original form was designed by Freeman Thomas and J Mays. At the Los Angeles auto show last November, Audi unwrapped the second-generation TT roadster, which was shaped by Walter de'Silva, who currently heads the styling departments at Audi, Seat, and Lamborghini. The new TT is evolutionary in appearance and character, but it also shouts progress in terms of packaging and presentation. The new car features a more dynamic exterior that blends well with the shape of Audi's mid-engine R8 supercar and the forthcoming A5 coupe. The long, low nose instantly clarifies which end is which, the extended wheelbase supports the transition from banzai speedster to proper sports car, and the increased dimensions deliver make it more spacious. At the same time, de'Silva retained all the trademark radii, the sculptured flanks, and the rounded-off overhead views. This is still a little masterpiece.
Like the TT coupe, the roadster can be powered by the 200-hp, turbocharged and direct-injected 2.0-liter four or, in Quattro guise, by the 250-hp, 3.2-liter V-6. A metamorphosis of the narrow-angle V-6 first launched in the 1992 Volkswagen Corrado SLC, the engine is sufficiently torquey and powerful--but it's also an acoustic nonevent, is quite thirsty when pushed, and cannot muster the same grunt as the 300-plus-hp sixes offered by the competition. In combination with Quattro, however, it turns the TT into an extremely sure-footed and efficient all-weather machine. But that's tempered by a calculated coldness and detached driving dynamics, both of which come as a result of putting the prime emphasis on roadholding. What this approach lacks is feedback and tactility--it's more remote-control self-confident than hands-on intuitive.
Anyone who likes the Volkswagen GTI will like the front-wheel-drive TT roadster with the 200-hp engine. No, it doesn't provide the V-6 Quattro's riveting traction when accelerating hard out of a wet hairpin, but it feels pretty special nonetheless. What's so nice about the 2.0-liter four is the way it produces ample torque without sacrificing horsepower. The torque plateaus from 1800 to 5000 rpm, and you can rev the hell out of the sixteen-valve engine before it will cut off the fuel feed at 6800 rpm. Fuel economy beats the V-6 by eighteen percent on paper and by probably double that in real life. This from an engine that accelerates the TT roadster, no lightweight at 3130 pounds, from 0 to 60 mph in 6.3 seconds and takes it to a governed 130 mph.
The transmission of choice is the S tronic--also known as DSG--automatic gearbox. Whatever you call it, it's still the same clever, dual-clutch unit that doesn't interrupt power delivery during full-throttle upshifts. Because the two clutch units open and close in sync, there's always a gear selected while the next one is being engaged. That's fine as long as you and your car's ECU think alike. But there are cases--such as an aborted passing maneuver or the need to jump two gears at a time--when the S tronic momentarily slows down to the shifting pace of a conventional automatic. Although Audi gives you two shift paddles to play with, the cogs do so well when left alone that you're already halfway down your favorite stretch of back road before you're tempted to flick the gear lever from auto to manual.
The 2008 TT roadster comes with a free upgrade from a standard to a superior cabin. There is more head and shoulder room, and the cargo space has increased from 7.4 to 8.8 cubic feet--no matter whether the roof is up or down. The optional motorized convertible top opens and closes in a blazingly fast twelve seconds. Like the roof of the Porsche Boxster, the largest panel doubles as a tonneau cover. Those who don't want to spend a small fortune on hair spray should deploy the power-operated vertical wind deflector, which spans the space between the fixed rollover-protection hoops. For those occasions when it's raised, the high-tech canvas roof has integrated acoustic mats for more hush, four crossbars for more stability, and a heated, glass rear window for better visibility. Integrated into the trailing edge of the trunk lid is a spoiler that extends automatically when the car reaches 75 mph and retracts again below 50 mph; it also can be raised and lowered manually.
Strengths and weaknesses? Like all Audis, the TT roadster boasts exceptional materials and quality. The S tronic, probably the best transmission on the market, works particularly well in manual or sport mode when it blips the throttle during downshifts, Lamborghini Murcilago-style. The steering, the brakes, and the throttle are linear in action and beautifully blended in weight, so they instantly convey a confidence-inspiring, in-command feeling. The four-cylinder engine provides all the oomph you need in a car like this. Leather seats with Alcantara inserts are standard, and a napa full-leather treatment is optional. The cockpit is nicely laid out, but it lacks the latest MMI ergonomics found in the A6 and the A8, and it includes the silly, squared-off steering wheel first introduced in the European-market RS4. The standard suspension already is on the firm side when combined with the optional eighteen-inch wheels, so you definitely don't need the nineteen-inchers or the additional firmness provided by the optional magnetic-ride system.
In all, the TT has been nicely upgraded without losing its iconic style, but it still lacks the driver involvement of a pure sports car.